Egypt. The story so far

As I've said on this blog before, there's always a tendency for media organisations to "move on" from an issue once the story’s been "done". This is basically what’s happened with Egypt.

From those heady February days when images from Tahrir Square were all over the TV news, coverage has dwindled (more or less) to sporadic mentions of the fate of the Mubaraks, Hosni and Suzanne. (That is, aside from the recent horrendous attack on the Coptic Christian church in Imbaba in Cairo).

This is understandable and I make no criticism of news values. It’s the same with any big story (Fukushima, the Mexico mining rescue, whatever). But when the majority of journalists have flown out of a country, leaving it to a few “specialists”, there’s an important place for revisiting a key issue like Egypt’s historic January-February revolution.

This is exactly what a major new report from Amnesty does. In great detail (123 pages of it!), it takes the reader through the whole amazing phenomenon of Egypt’s mass uprising: of how people defied an authoritarian government and took to the streets in vast numbers; of how Egyptian security forces used excessive force against protestors, killing some 840 and injuring more than 6,000; of how numerous protestors were taken into detention and horribly tortured; and of how the authorities later set up an investigation (originally called, rather nicely, the “Investigation and Fact Finding Committee of the Youth Uprising”) into so-called “non-legitimate practices” during it all.

To me the most striking part of Amnesty’s blockbuster report is a chapter on the little-discussed killing of prisoners during disturbances at Egyptian jails. It’s a disturbing episode. Some jails saw riots and break-outs (and break-ins, with some protestors forced to leave). In many jails the guards and the army recklessly shot at (and tear-gassed) prisoners, including from watchtowers and even while inmates were in their cells (ie not escaping, not presenting a threat). Here’s one quick example:

Saber Farouq El-Sayed, 30, who’d nearly completed an 11-year sentence, was killed in El-Qatta El-Gedid Prison on 30 January. An eyewitness said: “Saber, a few other inmates and I heard the sound of a military helicopter … We wanted the people in the helicopter to realise the seriousness of our situation. We started carrying the bodies of our inmates who fell a day earlier and placing them in the middle of the yard to get the helicopter’s attention. After moving a number of bodies, the watchtower guards opened fire on us. We all ran to hide and then realised that Saber was not among us… The bullet hit the back of his head and he was bleeding heavily. He was still alive but unconscious… He died shortly afterwards.”

Despite this, his death was recorded as a “case of rioting”. Saber’s grieving sister told Amnesty: “He’s been locked in prison for 11 years… Do those who shot him know this? Do they know that we have been waiting all these years for his release, which was only months away? Do they know that I worked as a domestic worker in people’s homes so that I could pay for the long journey to visit him?”

To add a macabre irony to the disturbing and deeply sad nature of these cases, some of the prisoners shot by guards were actually from the death row at Cairo’s Iste’naf jail. The point is that cases like Saber’s killing are now in danger of being forgotten in the aftermath of Egypt’s turbulent spring. This report seeks to ensure that that doesn’t happen.

PS: thank the lord for that media staple, the "100 days on" story. Today's Guardian has an excellent feature (one of several promised) on the "new Egypt", as this Sunday marks 100 days since Muabarak's fall.  I was particularly taken by Jack Shenker's account of Cairo's street artists trying to memorialise the "martyrs" of the revolution. Check it out: it's a good read.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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